By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination Specialist and Europe River & Ocean Cruise Expert
The northern part of Europe is a fascinating region of the European continent. Anne & I have sailed this region twice. The Baltic Sea borders Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany. Because of the distances between countries, high cost of some of the countries in this region, and visa requirements of Russia, a cruise often is the best way to get to visit the region at a reasonable price. Believe me, you can visit this area by land or flying but at a much higher cost and a lot of wasted time traveling from one country to another, so especially in this region, an ocean cruise really is the best way to visit multiple countries of Northern Europe. Another really good reason to cruise the Baltic, is the vast choice of cruise lines. There is a choice for all–from ultra luxury to premium to mainstream.
We have been on two Baltic Sea cruises and had a great chance to visit ports in 6 of the 9 countries that border the Baltic Sea. We also have city guides for each of these cities–if you want one email me at email@example.com.
When to Go
Baltic cruises operate between May and September. Most cruises last 10 to 14 days. One of the best features of these summer sailings is the temperature–mostly 60s to 70s–sure is a lot better than the hot Mediterranean during the summer. Due to the harsh winters and limited day light hours of the winters, summer in this region brings folks to the streets, making it vibrant and fun. An added plus to visiting during the summer months is the festivals often available at the various ports. For example, in Russia, June is known for its festival of the “White Nights”–a celebration of the extended daylight hours.
Some of the Ports
St. Petersburg in Russia is the big attraction for Baltic cruises, with so much to see that most cruise ships stay at least two days. This city is the land of the tsars and tsarinas. In St. Petersburg, visiting the magnificent Peterhof Palace and its fountains and the Hermitage rate as some of our best experiences in Europe. By far, this intriguing city may be the most difficult to visit on your own–the visa requirements, language and Cyrillic alphabet often make it a unique challenge, so a cruise is a great option. The good news, however, is that St. Petersburg is the most western of all Russia cities.
Our favorite port in the Baltic is Tallinn, Estonia—the old town is one of the best preserved walled cities in all of Europe. Visiting Tallinn is like going back to the middle ages, because some of the buildings date back to the 1500s. There are 26 watch towers on the almost intact city walls. It was an old trading partner of the Hanseatic League and the old town is really two towns separated by a wall. The upper town (called Toompea) was the governmental center of Estonia. The lower town was for the merchants, usually German, Danish and Swedish. We just love roaming the old town—there are great sites, reasonably priced food and drinks and good shops, often with wrought iron signs.
Riga, the capital of Latvia, is a lesser known port. It has a good old town area. The dock area is an easy 10 minute walk to the old town. The buildings are not as old as other Baltic old towns–most date from the 18th century. The town hall square and cathedral square , Riga castle and the Swedish Gate are all interesting places to visit.
Docking in the northern German port of Warnemunde, allowed us to visit Berlin. Warnemunde does not have many unique sights, although it is a nice German town, but the 3 hour train ride to Berlin is well worth the effort. Many choose to take a cruise tour, but if you are familiar with riding trains, it is easy to do on your own and Anne and I did just that on our last Baltic cruise. Berlin is a must see place in Europe, in my opinion. Berlin is Germany’s capital and cultural center. The city was founded in the 13th century. Berlin was divided after WW II and during the Cold War became a symbol of the conflict between East and West. Today it’s known for its art scene, nightlife and modern architecture. Reminders of the city’s turbulent 20th century history include its Holocaust Memorial and the Berlin Wall’s graffiti on the old concrete barrier. Its 18th-century Brandenburg Gate has become an iconic symbol of German reunification.
Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital, is often a starting point for Baltic cruises. If you do not port near the city center (cruise ships port in 3 possible locations), take a taxi to get to its core if you plan to visit without a tour–we walked once on our first cruise and it was just too long–maybe 2-3 miles. Key sites are Tivoli Gardens, City Hall Square and the colorful old harbor area, The Stroget, a pedestrian only street, is one of Europe’s best walking streets.
Helsinki, Finland’s capital, grew up around its harbor. Helsinki and Finland have one of the world’s highest standards of living. Key sites are the market square harbor, the Esplanade (a great pedestrian walkway and boulevard), and the Senate Square. We have visited twice and really like Helsinki—our favorites are the market square area and the Esplanade.
Stockholm is built on a series of 14 islands connected by bridges. This is a town of great old sites and really new modern places. The old town is excellent and one of my favorite sites. The Gamla Stan (old city) was a part of the Hanseatic League and the resulting trade helped the city grow and prosper. You will enjoy wandering in the old town. The Gamla Stan, the historic old town, is full of color, has great little shops and the royal palace and parliament buildings are all concentrated in an easily walkable area. In the more modern part of town, we even went to an ice bar for a drink—pretty cool to say the least!
Oslo, capital city of Norway, has a great port. It is located on the country’s southern coast at the head of the Oslo fjord. The city of Oslo is known for its citywide green spaces and museums. The harbor area is a great place to walk around. The Akershus fortress, the town hall and Nobel Peace museum are key sites in the harbor area.
Street Performer and harbor area, Oslo, Norway
Our Final Thoughts
Go on a Baltic cruise! It is awesome and will make memories of a lifetime. We want to help you achieve your travel dreams—remember if you want to Visit Dream Destinations—please contact Hank (713-397-0188) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to get started or just tell us about your travel dreams. We are here to help you: Savor life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!